There’s a joke that goes:
How can you tell when a politician is lying?
Answer: Their lips move.
Those of us who don’t run for high office, but sneer from the cheap seats at those who do, need to somehow find a way to limit our natural and often justified cynicism that those who run are little more than ambition made flesh, willing to say or do anything to get to the next rung of the slippery ladder.
The passing of Mario Cuomo is a good opportunity to recall that there are politicians who are politicians because they believe in things and want to give voice to those beliefs, who must have ambition and some quotient of ruthlessness to get anywhere in the politics game, but who are not just ruthless ambition made flesh.
When a politician announces they will not run, the fallback cynical journalistic thought is that the candidate decided he couldn’t win.
Cuomo was the media-designated frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, but decided not to run. Writing for the New Yorker, Ken Auletta, who covered Cuomo closely and knew him well, says that:
“He chose not to run for President in 1992 because his ambition was superseded by his distaste for the grovelling, the fundraising, the selling, the motels.”
Cuomo was also a liberal’s liberal. Auletta confesses that he “loved” Cuomo. You can sneer at that if you like, but Auletta, at 72, has nothing to gain from such a unjournalistic confession. He cites what he calls his “most consequential memory” of Cuomo, from his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco:
“He challenged President Reagan’s assertion that America was like a ‘shining city on a hill.’
“Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill,’” Cuomo declared. “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit, in your shining city.”